My back strains as I pick up the pieces of the sky, lift them above my head, and put them into place. They're lighter than they look, but still bigger than me. The jagged edges shine with iridescence.
Clouds flow inside each blue fragment. I pick up some smaller pieces, the size of my hands, turn them over to see how they fit together. When the fragments connect, the cracks blur together, but the iridescence doesnít disappear - it seems to dissolve, somehow, overshadowed by the blue, but still there.
The ground around me is dark. Amidst the rubble, I can barely make out the dusty dusky outlines of houses. There is no sign of the throne. I don't notice the black shape behind me until I feel a shadow brush across my back.
(- shadow? but there's no sun -)
"Where's the girl?" I ask.
The nekomata climbs out from the mound of sky behind me. "She has gone to sleep."
Both of us are using our real voices this time, not thoughts. Or at least, I think we are. I feel somehow like a radio wave, fading in and out as I pass through a world much more solid than I am.
"Will she be okay?"
"For the very tired, sleep is best."
"Oh." I hoist another piece of rubble over my head, slide it into place.
"Why do you ask?"
The nekomata grabs a slab in its claws, rises up on its hind legs to place it above my head.
"You are anxious for the day to change," it says. I wonder if it's the deepness of its voice that causes it to resonate inside my chest, or something else.
I say, "Yeah."
"Tomorrow things will change."
"Why do you want this? For yourself?"
"No," I say. I know this is true, but I stop before I say more, unsure whether I can find words for my thoughts. But when I do say them, they feel true.
"I wouldn't be able to do this for myself. That's what was so scary about the room... not the dark, or Akito, or even the loneliness - it was the way I could stop caring. It was easy, to let the days slip by without me being connected to them. It felt terrible, but... it was easy."
I push another piece of sky into place while I gather my thoughts. As the sky grows higher, light streams out, illuminating the fractures in the concrete where plants have begun to grow.
The nekomata says, "Then why?"
"This curse has hurt too many people. I won't be able to live with myself unless I try to stop that."
I fit in the last block that I can reach. The emptiness still looms above me, not black or white, but a colour my mind can't hold. Every time I try to look, I'm forced to turn away. The lack of colour hurts.
I stand back and let the light from the sky fall all over me. The nekomata steps back too. When I look at the creature, I notice its fur isn't black, exactly - or it is, but the kind of black that holds every colour inside, like a raven's feather or an oil slick.
I say, "That girl. You said she was a spirit. But last time you said she was part of my thoughts."
"Of course. How else could spirits remain here?"
I take a step towards the nekomata, and the light grows brighter. The white spaces of its eyes widen, and inside them, two orange marbles expand. This time I'm not surprised when the embers become my eyes. I look into them, become dizzy as I reflect myself on to infinity.
The nekomata takes a step towards me. We reach for each other, hand and claw. When we touch, we melt together like paint.
The sun rises.
Hana-chan, Airi-kun, and I stand before the film club students and bow.
"This is our presentation," I say. "W-we decided to do a documentary form." Hana-chan nods at me, and I smile, straighten my skirt. "We chose the topic of family. We hope you will like our movie."
Airi-kun adjusts the knobs on the projector until the square of light focuses on the sheet at the front of the room. She flashes a thumbs up, and Hana-chan hits the play button on the remote.
A blue square glows on the sheet. Tanaka-sensei flips the lights, and the square shines brighter. White letters fade in on the center of the blue.
The letters fade out. Misty clouds swirl up the screen as the camera lowers.
Hana-chan and Megumi-chan sit at a picnic table, playing chess. Hana-chan smiles calmly, and Megumi-chan eyes the board. The park is huge and green. In the background, joggers in bright colours pass by, and teenagers laugh as they play tennis. A group of seniors practice tai-chi by the lake. You can hear birds.
"Family means a lot of things," my voice says. "The literal meaning is shared biology, but to most people, it's a lot more complicated."
The camera focuses on the board. Both sets of pieces are black. Hana-chan has tied bows on her pieces to distinguish them.
"For most people, the strongest bonds they experience aren't because of biology, but because of a shared history."
The camera zooms out. Megumi-chan moves his knight. He looks at Hana-chan, and his mouth forms the faintest of smiles.
The scene shifts to Uo-chan, Kyo-kun, Yuki, Hana-chan and I playing volleyball at the game center. You can see that we're laughing, but you can't hear what we're saying because a piano song starts playing. It was Airi's idea, since it was easier than putting beeps in Kyo-kun's dialogue. The song is happy, but also sad. Or maybe the type of happiness that makes you feel like you could cry easily, because you feel so opened up. It is happy, though.
"Becoming close to someone is a process, and sometimes you don't even realize it's happening. You can look back, and realize there are people who you never thought you would be close to, but now, you can't imagine your life without them."
The scene fade into another. In the rush of luggage and harried travelers at an airport, the crowd parts to allow Uo-chan and a woman in a wheelchair to embrace.
"Sometimes when you get to know people better, you realize they're not who you expected. But that doesn't mean it's bad. That's what makes the world such an interesting place - everyone is always surprising each other."
(I will never forget that moment. We were in line at security and a voice behind us said, "Wait!" We turned around. The other people in line turned around. No one knew what they were looking at.
And then a woman's voice said, "Arisa-san. I don't feel right not saying goodbye."
A woman in a wheelchair pushed herself forward. The other people in line moved away for her. Uo-chan said, "Mom."
The woman's hair was falling out of its ponytail, and her face was slightly red. But she was grinning. "I'll miss you," she said. "Thank you so much for coming. Thank you so much."
"Thank you, too," says Uo-chan.
The woman - Uo-chan's mom - shook her head. "I didn't do anything for you to thank me for. But... I hope your flight is safe. And I promise I'll write." Her eyes looked wet, but she was still smiling.
Uo-chan hugged her. It was quick, and Uo-chan had to bend over, but there was more discomfort to it than that. There was wetness in their eyes, but they weren't sad, exactly, completely. There was a whole story there that I didn't know, but I could tell it was complicated.
Their arms intertwined, then disconnected.
They waved goodbye.)
Airi and her friends sign yearbooks in the school hallway.
"People change. We have to go different ways. But when you really care about someone, you reach a point where even if they're not there physically, they're a part of your life. Because if you hadn't known them, you wouldnít be who you are."
The camera follows my back as I walk into Shigure-san's house. No one is home. The song has finished, and there are only my footsteps as I walk up the stairs.
I drop my backpack on the bed, and bow to the photograph of my mother. The camera passes over my shoulder and focuses on her. She is giving a peace sign, and she is smiling.
Fade to black.
"You idiot!" A blast of dark hair and a small form barrels into me, slamming me into a wall of the family head's house and knocking the air from my lungs. "I was so worried!"
"H-hi Kagura," I gasp out, forcing air back into my lungs. She looks at me with tears hanging from her eyelashes.
"I can't believe you did it. You brilliant, brilliant idiot."
"Thanks, I think. Hey, hey - it's alright."
Her body has started to shake with silent crying. "I thought I'd never see you again. I don't even care that you have a girlfriend, I just wanted to see you."
"It's alright, I'm back, it's - wait. You knew?"
"Of course I knew! Did you think I of all people was going to miss this news in your life?"
"No. No, I guess not." And then I laugh. It bursts out of me, catching me by surprise, and then I can't stop. Kagura rolls her eyes, and then it catches hold of her too. We laugh and hold onto each other and when we stop, our eyes are wet and we look at each other, amazed.
Sometimes you forget how much you missed someone until you see them again.
I say, "We have to get the group together and see the new Mogeta movie."
"Good plan. I have to meet this Arisa-chan."
"You've already met."
"But not in the context of your girlfriend! I have to approve."
"Fair enough." I nod. "You'll like her. She used to threaten people with a lead pipe."
"Good, good. She'll keep you in line." She lets go of me, and her eyes travel up and down. "You look different."
"I got older."
"Hopefully. You, uh, got a haircut. It looks nice."
"Thank you!" She smiles, widely but quickly fading. "Kyo?"
"Why are you here?"
"There's something I have to talk to Akito about."
"Are you, um, sure that's safe?"
"No. But I still have to."
"I'll go with you. If he tries anything I can -"
"No. Really, Kagura, it's all right. And... It's kind of something I think might go better if it's just me."
"Okay." She hugs me again, with enough force to strain my ribs. "Be careful."
"I will be."
"No, you won't." She lets go, looks at me with dark brown eyes. "But I trust you."
Kureno approaches me outside Akito's door. "Are you going to help him?" he says.
"I'm gonna try."
His eyes are tired, glowing in faint blue shadows. I wonder if he's been crying, then dismiss the idea. That's not something Kureno would do. But maybe things are worse than I thought.
"Okay," says Kureno. "Best of luck."
"Thanks." I enter Akito's room and shut the door behind me.
Darkness paints the room from wall to wall, worse than the prison I'd been kept in. The smell is strange - rotten food, old sweat.
"You came back." His voice is cracking branches. His breathing sounds like it hurts. "I knew you would."
I walk towards the sound of him. "Me too."
"You turned yourself in."
"No." I sit down on the floor beside him. "I came to talk to you."
"I think you're confused." He touches my face, and I fight back every instinct to shudder. His fingers are as cold and sharp-tipped as icicles. "You're the cat. We don't talk."
"My name is Kyo, not The Cat. And you're not god anymore."
His hand draws back as if to slap me, but it never comes. "Explain."
""The curse is wearing off. The only thing keeping it in place is that we keep holding on to it, enforcing it with the way we live." I draw back my sleeve. "Look."
As my eyes adjust to the dark, his face appears before me, grey and framed in wild hair. He's thinner, making his eyes stick out, huge and dark. His gaze travels to my wrist and its lack of bracelet, then back to me. "What did you do?" His voice is soft."
"I stopped believing. That I was worthless, and cursed, and... it stopped. The spirit is still there, but... it doesn't take me over the same way."
"You're lying. It can't be that simple."
"It's not. Every day, sometimes every minute, I have to correct the direction of my thoughts, and I still feel the spirit humming inside me, pushing at the surface of my skin. But... something's different. Kureno's free too, has been for a long time. The curse is fading.
"I read the family histories, you know. I wasn't stupid, as a kid, and since none of you Sohmas wanted to interact with me I needed something to do. The lives of the gods have been getting shorter and shorter. Maybe no one on earth is supposed to have that power anymore."
"That's blasphemy," he says. But his voice isn't angry.
"It will save your life. If you let go."
"Do you promise that?"
"Yeah. I promise."
He moves. His clothes shuffle loudly as he slides towards me. But rather than strike, he falls into me, arms around me. I stay still, not even breathing, as the head of the family holds on to me. A few tears fall to my neck. "How will I live?" His voice is less than a whisper.I let myself breathe again, and put my arms around him too. His spine pokes against my hand through his robes. It feels ancient and frail.
"You'll be free," I say.
"How did the talk go?" Arisa asks in the woods outside the house. I take her hand as we begin the walk home
"Good," I say. "Things are... they're going to change."
"I still can't believe it," she says, shaking her head. "Gods and curses. It's so... surreal, to think that exists. That we're part of it."
"I think it's surreal to be part of something other than that," I say. Then I say, "I love you." I mean it. A year ago, I didn't know I could mean anything as much as I mean that.
She leans in to kiss me, arms at her side, the way we're used to. But I guide her arms until they're around me, and mine around her. Our hearts try to match each other's beats. The two of us remain for many minutes, listening to the wind in the trees. Everything smells like spring.
"You're not going to transform?" she asks.
"I will eventually. I'm not totally free yet. But we have now."
She says, "I'm glad. I love you too, you know."
I say, "I know."
"I can't believe it." Hatori shakes his head. "I've never seen such a recovery."
"I never doubted her," says Shigure. "Our Akito has never been predictable."
"It's still a miracle. And the least you can do is look up from that computer."
Shigure's hands continue to clack against the keyboard. "You know, I had a suspicion that kind of thing would work. Kyo's plan."
"Then why didn't you tell it to her?"
"Do you think she would have believed me?"
"No. I suppose you don't exactly have the best track record." He tries to look at the other man's screen, but Shigure tilts the laptop away, wagging a disapproving finger. "You know, I wonder what things would be like if you used your insights into human nature for good rather than evil."
"Now Ha-san, would you really go so far as to call my novels evil? I thought artistically dubious was direct enough."
"You know what I meant."
"Yes, yes," Shigure sighs. He closes the laptop and plugs it into a cord from the wall, picks up his coat from the chair and slips his arms through the sleeves. "Maybe one day I'll change my ways. You never know."
"I hope so. Try not to upset her this visit."
"Oh, I have no doubt I will."
"What does that mean?"
"It means two people who have lived their whole lives adapted to the ways of the Sohma family are going to have a hard time moving on. But sometimes a jarring change is what people need. Or at least, it makes a good story."
"Promise me you'll take care of her."
"Of course." He answers without hesitation. There is a seriousness in his face even Hatori has rarely seen before. "If we're to survive in this world, we'll need to take as best care of each other as we can."
"That's uncharacteristically empathetic of you."
Shigure smiles. "I like to remain enigmatic."
In a dream, a black fog builds.
As the boy draws closer, he sees what he knows he will see: the black fog has four legs and a head, diamond sharp teeth shining in its open mouth as it takes long breathes of the air composing most of its body.
But the eyes are different than the boy expects. Not the orange of his own, or even the violet of the creature he's lived with for so long. They are the layered blue of a near-night sky, and a sprinkling of white flecks inside them radiate light through the deserted streets.
These same streets the creature dissassembles. This doesn't look like destruction; pieces come out into its strong hands, as evenly and easily as toy blocks. The creature piles these blocks onto each other, a staircase that pays no regard to gravity. In the empty space where blocks hang over air, roots of plants wave their roots, despite an absence of wind.
What are you building, thinks the boy. The creature doesn't answer. But as the boy watches, he understands.
The stairs grow higher and higher, the shadow half-walking, half-floating up the steps as it deposits each new block. The path is dirt and flowers and cracked asphalt, and looks more ancient and more alive than the boy has ever seen it. In the distance, houses have decayed and been reborn as mounds of green earth.
The stairs climb into a sky that no longer looks like a dome, but like a velvet blackness.
As it comes down from each step, the creature is bigger and less solid. Its mouth loses form, the white diamonds of its teeth migrating over its body, vivid white points amongst the dark. Soon the boy can't distinguish its legs, or the dazzling sharp of its claws. Only its eyes remain distinct, though they no longer look like eyes, on the creature that doesnít look like a creature, but a space of dark and light. And, the boy is startled to see, the space is beautiful.
The boy watches, entranced, for more time than he can measure.
With the last step, the creature touches the black of the sky and rises, until its own blackness is indistinguishable. The diamonds it held in its mouth and hands and eyes blink off and on in the night. Blue eyes provide the only hint of colour - so diluted by the black the boy can barely see it, but he knows it's there.
The boy sits at the base of the stairs and watches the stars.
Author's note: Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story and for sticking with it to the end. It means so much to me. I would be truly grateful if you would take a moment to let me know your thoughts on this piece.
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